Mark Zuckerberg’s Personal News Shows Why Privacy is the True Bedrock of an “Open and Connected World”

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg shared some happy news with the world. He and his wife are expecting a baby girl. Congratulations! Here’s how the New York Times described it:

Mr. Zuckerberg, chief executive of the social networking giant, wrote in an uncharacteristically personal post that he and Ms. Chan had had three miscarriages before this pregnancy — at once demonstrating a personal desire to break the stigma associated with women who miscarry and his business-related belief in Facebook as an ideal place for users to record life events.

Here’s how Mark continued:

Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you — as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own. In today’s open and connected world, discussing these issues doesn’t distance us; it brings us together. It creates understanding and tolerance, and it gives us hope.

Again: Congratulations!

But this moment is worth pondering, because this is actually first a celebration of privacy and control, and only then of being open. And it’s clear Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan had privacy and control over their news, because the world did not know this before they chose to share it with us — and it wasn’t our business if and when they chose to share. This is, as the New York Times says, “an uncharacteristically personal” post. Most of the time, Mark Zuckerberg guards his privacy like a hawk. (He is purchasing homes around his, and a whole island in Hawaii, to protect his privacy).

Chosing when to be not so open, and choosing to “be closed,” choosing with whom to share sad, challenging or uncomfortable news, or any kind of news for that matter, is the bedrock which allows people to be open and connected, when the time is right for them.

For Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, the time understandably was not when they were struggling through these miscarriages. For some people, it might have been. I imagine they chose to share their worries and frustrations with close friends and family — a group they defined. If they had never achieved a healthy pregnancy, they may have never chose to share the whole story with the world. Or maybe they would. Both are absolutely understandable.

And this is all that many privacy critics of Facebook have been saying for years. The issue was never opposing connectedness. It was agency, ease of settings (and not having Facebook change them and thus unexpectedly expose people), and providing people with meaningful control especially over the scale of exposure and openness. Some things are for close friends. Some are for the world.

It’s true that many issues, like miscarriage, benefit from more conversation. It’s true that many people feel alone when they are actually experiencing a shared human challenge. It’s the same mechanism that allows Facebook to be so powerful in repressive regimes: the moment of connectedness when you realize you are not alone. This is Facebook’s greatest contribution: to allow us to connect. But over the years, I’ve also heard many people say they have stopped sharing crucial information on Facebook because they were so perplexed by the ever-changing, confusing privacy settings.

There is a necessary corollary to openness — guarding your privacy like a hawk, the same way I assume Mark and Priscilla will now guard the privacy of their baby girl.

Privacy is not the opposite of an “open and connected world.” Privacy is the bedrock upon which an open and connected world can flourish. Imagine the opposite: if an insensitive person, or a confusing or changed Facebook setting, had caused Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s struggles to conceive to be disclosed last year, when they were facing a more difficult time. They wouldn’t feel empowered, or connected. They would feel violated.

Privacy, the bedrock of openness, is at its core about agency, about control and about the right to engage the world on your own terms (and with the name of your own choosing, too). Just like privacy, openness are connectedness are about agency and control — otherwise, they would be exploitative and become a violation. There is no contradiction between strong privacy and an open and connected world. Privacy and openness, control and connectedness, agency and disclosure feed on each other, and can only be built on each other.